An obituary on Johnny Unitas in the Sept. 12 Sports section incorrectly said that Unitas led the Colts to a game-winning field goal in overtime of the 1958 NFL championship game against the New York Giants. The winning score was a touchdown run by Alan Ameche. (Published 9/13/02)
Johnny Unitas, 69, the "Golden Arm" quarterback of the Baltimore Colts who led his team to NFL prominence in the 1950s and '60s with limited physical attributes but an unsurpassed tactical understanding of the game, died yesterday. His family said he collapsed after a heart attack while working out at a physical fitness center in Timonium, Md., and was pronounced dead at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.
His leadership of the Colts coincided with a period of popular ascendancy for the NFL, and he directed his team to championships in 1958 and 1959. The Colts won the Super Bowl in 1971 with Unitas playing sparingly. From a semipro career on pock-marked fields of Pittsburgh he went on to become one of the NFL's premier record holders. He passed for more than 40,000 yards and completed at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games from 1956-60. In 1979 he was admitted on the first ballot to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Unitas, who was said to have been too small to play college football for Notre Dame and was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who thought he wasn't smart enough to play quarterback, played in 10 Pro Bowls as a Baltimore Colt. He was player of the year three times.
On the NFL's 50th anniversary, Unitas was voted the greatest all-time quarterback by the 36 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.
"Johnny Unitas is the greatest quarterback ever to play the game," Sid Luckman, the great quarterback of the Chicago Bears in the 1940s, once said, "better than I was, better than Sammy Baugh, better than anyone."
In an 18-year NFL career, Unitas was known for an uncanny ability to call his own plays and an unnerving skill for reading the defenses stacked against him. For 17 seasons he played with the Colts, then spent one season with San Diego before retiring in 1973.
He was cool under fire, intensely competitive and he set up quickly in the pocket, passing for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns in 211 NFL games. Sid Gilman, a former coach of the Los Angeles Rams, once observed that Unitas "doesn't let anything bother him. He just stays in there until he's ready to throw. I don't know what he uses for blood, but I guarantee you it isn't warm. It's ice cold."
Two of his games, in particular, were pivotal in the development of the NFL: the 1958 championship win over the New York Giants and the loss in Super Bowl III to Joe Namath's New York Jets in 1969.
In the Giants game, Unitas led the Colts in Yankee Stadium against long odds in what many commentators believe was the most thrilling game in professional football history and the first decided in overtime.
Baltimore trailed 17-14 with 90 seconds left and had the ball on its 14-yard line. Showing the unflappable poise and command that was his trademark, Unitas, in the face of a fierce pass rush, threw four straight completions and took the ball to the Giants 20, where Steve Myrha kicked the tying field goal. Unitas then led a drive in sudden-death overtime that resulted in the winning field goal.
That game helped seal Unitas's celebrity status and and it conferred a new level of popularity on professional football, which at the time was competing with the college game for the football fans' loyalty and affection.
Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker for the Giants, and later the Redskins, who played in that game, said yesterday that neither Unitas's body nor his physical presence suggested greatness on the gridiron.
"He couldn't throw a screen pass like Y.A. Tittle. He couldn't run like Fran Tarkenton. He couldn't throw like Sonny Jurgensen. He was a sickly-looking guy," Huff said. "But John, he was the general. He was absolutely awesome under pressure."
Though he had missed most of the season with a sore elbow and played little in the game, Unitas's name is still associated with Baltimore's 16-7 Super Bowl loss to the Jets. The Colts were 17-point favorites against the Jets, from the upstart American Football League. Namath was the young long-haired QB who had audaciously guaranteed victory -- and delivered it.
Unitas came in with his team trailing 16-0, and led the Colts to their only touchdown. Two years later the Colts did win a Super Bowl, beating the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, but Unitas played only sparingly in that game.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Unitas grew up poor, the third of four children in a family of Lithuanian ancestry. He was 5 when his father, who operated a small coal delivery business, died of pneumonia. As a youth he played football on neighborhood sandlots, coming home bruised and battered, only to have his mother direct him to shovel several tons of coal for a neighbor.
He was 6 feet tall and weighed only 145 pounds when he finished high school, which convinced many colleges, including Notre Dame, that he was too small for a football scholarship. Finally he got an offer from Louisville, where he played well enough to draw the attention of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him in the ninth round but then released him after the 1955 training camp. For a year he played semipro football in Pittsburgh for $6 a game while working as a pile driver at a construction site.
The next year the Colts, acting on a tip, signed him for $7,000 to back up George Shaw, the Colts' starting quarterback and one of the NFL's best at the time. When Shaw was injured, Unitas took the field as his replacement in the fourth game of the 1956 season. His NFL career began on an inauspicious note. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. On the next two possessions Unitas fumbled. But the Colts' other backup quarterback had decided to go to law school, and Unitas started the next game, in which the Colts beat the Green Bay Packers, 28-21. The next week they upset the Cleveland Browns and Unitas began his football ascendancy. His string of touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games would commence later that season.
While Unitas was good for the game, it was not always good to him, or at least his body. An elbow injury in a 1968 preseason game would plague him for the rest of his life. As he aged he developed osteoarthritis that made it painful for him to sign autographs or cut a steak. He had only limited use of his right hand and he feuded for years with the NFL over compensation for this affliction. He also had undergone two knee-replacement surgeries and complained of nerve damage to other parts of his body.
After leaving football, Unitas remained in the Baltimore area, but his career off the field was undistinguished. For a time he had a restaurant, "The Golden Arm," but he also had business ventures that went bad. In 1991 he filed for bankruptcy protection.
His relationship with his old team also was less than smooth. In 1984, when the Colts moved to Indianapolis, Unitas ended the relationship. But he would later show up occasionally on the sidelines at Ravens home football games.
In 1997 he attended a ceremony sponsored by the Ravens for the closing of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, the site of most of his NFL feats. The event put his ailments on display. Unitas was supposed to pass downfield. He had to hand off instead.
Unitas is survived by his second wife, Sandy, and eight children: five (Janice, Kenneth, Robert, Chris and John Jr.) from his first marriage and three (Paige, Joe and Chad) from his second. Unitas's first wife, Dorothy, died earlier this year.
Staff writer Ken Denlinger contributed to this report.